Grower’s Thoughts: Farmers Optimistic About Crop, Rebound in U-pick Operations

As we enter the harvesting season for Florida’s blueberry growers, many farmers are breathing a sigh of relief that this year is looking better than last. With COVID-19 hitting Florida in March of 2020, farmers, like so many others, found themselves thrown into a state of uncertainty and chaos. Mandatory shutdowns caused demand for most of Florida’s crops to plummet, as schools, restaurants, and resorts were forced to temporarily close. 

As commerce came to a screeching halt for a couple of weeks, there wasn’t much that growers could do to neutralize the disaster. Grocery stores didn’t have the staff available to unload trucks, so products would sit waiting for days until they could be attended to. Although farmers are considered essential workers, new labor protocols had to be quickly developed and implemented to protect workers. Fortunately, the United States federal government enacted the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to provide quick relief to certain types of businesses, including farms. 

“When they came out with that PPP program,” blueberry grower Ryan Atwood recalls, “that really stabilized things. I’ll give the government credit for taking quick action on that. I think things would have had the potential to be really bad if we hadn’t gotten things back on track.”

One year later, the situation has dramatically improved. Yes, COVID-19 is still a threat, but we’ve learned more about it and how to protect ourselves and each other from the disease. While most public establishments are still operating at reduced capacities and with certain restrictions in place, much of Florida is again open for business. That is good news for farmers, who can be confident that their products will not be going to waste this year.

So how is the season looking for blueberry growers? Pretty good, actually! A robust crop of berries is just now coming ready to harvest, giving Florida farmers a reason to be optimistic. All in all, the weather has been kind to the blueberry bushes this season. It’s been a little overcast here and there, but the berries have gotten the chill hours they need, and there has been no crop loss reported due to severe freezes or other damaging weather. 

Ryan Atwood is a past president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. He owns H&A Farms and established Atwood Family Farms, a 23-acre blueberry farm just outside of Umatilla in Eustis, in 2014. Evergreen is the first variety of blueberries to be harvested by the Atwoods in March. It’s a relatively low-volume crop, but the real fun begins in late March, when the Emerald blueberries start to come in. 

With the nice weather that blueberry farmers have been favored with, a healthy crop of berries is expected this year. That means that many Florida fields will be opening for U-picks starting in late March and running through April into May or June. People love visiting Florida farms to pick their own favorite fruits, making agritourism a thriving industry in the state. Since everyone was urged to stay home at this time last year, farmers are hoping to see a considerable turnout for berry picking this spring.

Atwood recalls how the pandemic affected his farm’s agritourism in 2020, “It hit right at the peak of our production. That was a big problem last year. We didn’t open our U-pick last year. We did a drive-through deal. We were very concerned about liability. I think this year we feel a lot more comfortable. We kind of understand what to do. From a commercial side, I don’t see it having any negative effect on our harvest season this year.”

Historically, Atwood Family Farms has hosted a fairly simple U-pick operation, charging visitors per pound for the berries they picked, and offering some locally produced jams and jellies for sale. This year, Atwood describes how they are creating a more festive destination for their customers to enjoy by inviting musicians and food trucks to entertain the public. They will be opening their U-pick the first weekend of April.

Throughout Florida, farms will be welcoming the public to enjoy harvesting their own blueberries to take home and enjoy with their family and friends. In Clermont, for example, Southern Hill Farms will soon be offering eight different varieties of plump, delicious blueberries for customers to pluck throughout the rest of the season. They’ll even have food trucks available every weekend for visitors who have worked up an appetite in the fields.

Even though the outlook is generally positive this year for Florida’s blueberry growers, there is still one issue that is giving them cause for concern: the market for blueberries, and many other crops, is being inundated with fruit produced in other countries. Traditionally, Florida would kick off the blueberry season domestically, followed by Georgia, and then North Carolina, New Jersey, and Michigan in succession. In the off-season, foreign producers would provide fruit for the American markets. Recently, however, other countries — especially Mexico — have begun offering their harvests while domestically-produced berries are still in the stores, negatively impacting local growers. This makes it imperative that consumers know – and care – where their food is grown.

“I want people to know where their produce is coming from,” Atwood implores. “Florida, particularly, suffers from Mexican fruit coming into our markets during our production periods, so our prices continue to get depressed because of this flood of Mexican fruit that keeps coming in. That’s something that I really want everyone to be aware of.”

You can support Florida farmers by encouraging your friends and associates to check the label before they buy to see where their food is produced. A sustainable future of domestic food security begins with the purchasing habits we practice now.


Share this post:

Comments on "Grower’s Thoughts: Farmers Optimistic About Crop, Rebound in U-pick Operations"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment